SAITAMA – Urawa Reds manager Gert Engels is confident his players can rediscover their appetite for success for Wednesday night’s crunch meeting with Gamba Osaka in the second leg of their Asian Champions League semifinal.
Urawa has suffered an alarming dip in form in the J. League and its title hopes took a hammer blow after a 1-0 defeat at home to Vissel Kobe last weekend saw the Reds fall six points behind leader Kashima Antlers with just five games left to play.
Engels blasted his players for underperforming against Vissel and has to lift them for one of their biggest games of the season at Saitama Stadium 2002, where the teams kick off all square following a 1-1 draw at Expo Stadium in the first leg.
Rumors have been circulating in the local media that a defeat on Wednesday could cost Engels more than a place in the ACL final and the German manager has demanded his players stand up and be counted.
“We need to be critical now. I am really somebody who protects the players in every situation. I won’t ever say ‘what he played was nothing today.’ I really like to protect the players,” said Engels.
“I need to tell them that they are not worse than one week ago which is definitely so, and that they are not tired, which can be an excuse. We need to talk and be confident but we need also to realize that there is some pressure and responsibility to perform like we need to perform.”
“I don’t like to push them down now but everybody has the right to expect us to be hungry for goals, be hungry for wins and fight and show a team spirit as well. I am confident we can do this against Gamba because everybody knows that something needs to happen.”
Engels will be forced to field a depleted side against Gamba as first-choice goalkeeper Ryota Tsuzuki and midfielders Hajime Hosogai and Takahito Soma all miss out due to suspensions.
One of the few positives from Saturday’s defeat was the performance of Norihiro Yamagishi, who will deputize in goal for Tsuzuki.
Yamagishi earned praise for several key saves against Kobe although Engels is hoping the 30-year-old goalkeeper will not be quite so busy against Gamba.
“Yamagishi was very good,” said Engels. “He had a very good game but that speaks a lot about our game as well. I think Yamagishi and Hosogai were the good things.”
Gamba beat Urawa 3-2 here earlier in the season in a game marred by some of the worst crowd trouble in the history of the J. League and they were unfortunate not to find a late winner in the first leg after Yasuhito Endo had canceled out Hosogai’s opener for the Reds.
Gamba moved level with Urawa on 47 points in the J. League after a 2-1 win over relegation-haunted Jubilo Iwata at the weekend and manager Akira Nishino is confident of his side progressing to the final, where they would meet either Australia’s Adelaide United or Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor.
“We can win in Saitama. The players and I believe we can make the final. We need to score and that’s good as it will define our style of play,” Nishino said.
“We’re not scared of Urawa Reds. This team is not the Urawa Reds we’re used to. They’re not as strong as last year.”
Adelaide look a strong bet to reach the final as they head to Tashkent on the back of a comfortable 3-0 win in the first leg.